New Questions on Women, Academe and Careers

September 22, 2008

In field after field, women either outperform or equal men -- only to lag in key positions in academe (or in other careers that attract the highly educated). Identifying the causes for these gender gaps has become increasingly urgent as colleges find their enrollments increasingly female and some formerly male dominated fields struggle to attract enough talent.

Seeking to advance the discussion about why these trends persist and what can be done about them, some of the leading scholars of gender, education and careers gathered Friday to present new and evolving research projects. Most of the research came from economists and the host for the symposium was Columbia University Business School -- perhaps explaining a practical, statistically based approach.

Key questions explored included the varying factors that help professional women achieve or miss their goals, why some professions are relatively more successful than others at both attracting and retaining women, and the relative significance of qualities of women and of institutions that may explain these gaps.

Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University, started off by reviewing her research on how college educated women have seen careers and family balanced from the beginning of the 20th century. Goldin sees five distinct cohorts of women -- and the evolution of what these women have wanted isn’t as clear-cut as some assume. It’s not that women today are insisting on more of what previous generations were denied, but that women (even the subset of women over time who were college educated and wanted to work) actually want something different today, she said.

The women who graduated from college at the beginning of the 20th century, she said, wanted family or a career -- not both. Subsequent generations wanted a job first and then a family, a family first and then a job, a career and then family. Only starting with those who graduated from colleges in the '80s and '90s was the goal explicitly to have both a career and a family -- with neither given clear preference. “The question returns to having it all,” she said.

And that suggests that comparisons are needed not just of the advancement of women, but of their ability to advance while having a family. For that, Goldin turned to research she is conducting with Lawrence Katz, another Harvard economist, on the “Harvard and Beyond Project,” which tracks what happens to three cohorts of graduates of the university -- those who graduated around 1970, 1980 and 1990 -- 15 years after they received their bachelor’s degrees. (Goldin and Katz both acknowledged that Harvard alumni are by no means typical of Americans, but suggested that the advantages Harvard graduates enjoy in education, connections and wealth make them an ideal group to study -- with the thinking that if these women can’t pull off the balancing act, it would be more difficult still for many others.)

Goldin focused on the percentage of women in these cohorts who are employed full time, all year round by highest degree obtained, and parental status. For all categories, the percentage of women working full time, all-year-round drops if they have a child or more than one child. But the drops aren’t equal. Having just one child appears to have a significant impact on the likelihood that a Ph.D. woman will still be working full time 15 years after graduation, but has a smaller impact on medical doctors. But having a second child makes Ph.D.’s and medical doctors relatively similar, while M.B.A.’s are much more likely to stop working full time -- with either one or two or more children.

Percentage of 'Harvard and Beyond' Women Employed Full Time 15 Years After Graduation

Advanced Degree Earned No Children 1 Child 2 or More Children
M.B.A. 84.4% 70.9% 40.0%
J.D. 82.5% 64.1% 48.5%
M.D., D.D.S., D.V.M 92.7% 80.5% 60.4%
Ph.D. 91.5% 64.9% 57.5%

Goldin said that these and other statistics raise the question of why "women do better in certain professions than others" at having both career and family. "Why are some professions more compatible with having it all?"

One of her current areas of research is exploring those professions in comparison to others. She noted, for example, that women have been flocking to fields such as veterinary medicine, optometry and pharmacy -- fields that require advanced degrees. Women's numbers have also increased dramatically, to equity, in medical schools. At the undergraduate level, she said, women are making up an increasing percentage of accounting students -- even though the field has traditionally been male dominated.

She noted that some of these fields have experienced "enormous changes in structure, and this is very separate from the fact that women are entering them," although the changes may be contributing to the popularity of the fields with women. For example, she noted that the past few decades, in which women have come into pharmacy, have also largely seen the replacement of owner-operated pharmacies with large drug stores where the pharmacist is an employee.

Among the characteristics she is finding among the career paths that are both attracting and retaining women: flexibility in schedules, "transparent career paths," and "predictable milestones" on the path to a career. The latter is important, she said, because the research shows that women are quite willing to study for long years (as in medicine) to be trained, but they want a clear path.

A comparison of medical and academic training isn't favorable to academe. Medical school "is difficult, but it takes four years," Goldin said, and medical internships have known durations. In graduate school for a Ph.D., students take some courses and prepare for some tests of their knowledge, but the process of completing a dissertation is mysterious to many and takes widely differing periods of time. "We say to take some exams and then we will give you a parachute and throw you out of a plane," she said of Ph.D. training.

Katz -- also working with data from the Harvard project -- said another key measure that needs more attention is the economic loss suffered for taking some time off from career for family related reasons. He has been comparing the income of groups of women in the Harvard database who took 18 months off from full-time work and those who never did. For comparable groups of women, he found that those with M.B.A.'s who took time off had incomes that were 53 percent lower than those who didn't. The losses for both Ph.D.'s and J.D.'s were 34 percent, while the loss for M.D.'s was only 16 percent.

Where the "economic cost is higher" of taking some time off, he said, more women leave the profession they have trained to enter, Katz said. He suggested that those who want to encourage more academics to return to full-time work at some point (not to mention those in the business world) explore why it is that M.D.'s suffer such relatively small economic loss from their decision to take some time off.

In some subsets of academic and professional life, particular reasons may be driving women out of professional advancement. Anne Preston, a professor of economics at Haverford College, presented analyses from various national databases as well as from in-depth interviews on why women and men leave scientific careers (many, but not all of which are in academe). Women at all levels of science are more likely to leave than are men; through the '80s, women with Ph.D.'s were less likely to leave, but they are now more likely to leave, she said.

Not only are women more likely to leave science, Preston said, but they leave for entirely different reasons than do men. Men who leave science jobs almost always do so for more money or an economic opportunity of some sort. Women cite as their top reasons discontent with the nature of science, a lack of mentoring, and family responsibilities.

Women who leave science careers are frustrated from what they see as "the narrowness of science" and a sense that "those who succeed have to be narrow," she said. Women in science are far less likely than men, her surveys have found, to have had someone they consider a mentor, either in graduate school or their careers.

In addition, some career patterns may be particularly discouraging of women pursuing careers in science, Preston said. For example, she noted that many young scientists have multiple postdocs before landing their first permanent position, and in many fields, it is considered optimal for scientists to have the postdocs at multiple institutions, rather than staying at the same place. Women with science Ph.D.'s are much more likely than their male counterparts to be married to other scientists or to people with advanced professional careers, she said. Moving around the country several times is seen as impossible for many women with partners, she said.

Preferences like wanting postdocs from multiple institutions may not have been created for sexist reasons, and may even have legitimate purposes, she said, but they are having a disproportionate -- and discouraging -- impact on female scientists.

While universities and other employers have some of the responsibility for helping women advance, so too may their spouses. Preston cited a survey of married male and female scientists (not married to one another) in which each were asked what share of household chores was performed by their spouses. The female scientists estimated that their spouses performed an average of 34.7 percent of chores, while the men estimated that their spouses perform 65.1 percent of chores. Even assuming equal levels of honesty (and some women in the audience had their doubts about the men), that's a gap that would have a significant burden on the women not faced by the men. (And the gaps are larger for childcare responsibilities.)

Gender differences in attitudes were also the subject of research presented by Muriel Niederle, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University. Her work explores how women and men respond to competition; her research subjects are undergraduates from a number of different universities.

The students are asked to solve mazes. First they are told that the payment will be based on how many mazes each student solves in a given period of time. All of the students in the group can be paid, based on how many mazes they solve. Then they are given the option of doing another round the same way, or being split into teams with a larger financial reward going to the team that solves the most mazes -- and no payment to the other team.. Women are much more likely to prefer the non-competitive approach and men gravitate overwhelmingly to the competition. Women are more likely, some studies have found, to go for the competition if it is single-sex and they are competing against other women.

Niederle noted that there could be logic to these choices if men did better on the mazes, but they don't. The gaps in risk-taking are as much from men who overestimate themselves and figure they will win (when they don't necessarily stand a chance) as from women who could win, but avoid the competition.

What does this mean? And should "institutional changes address these differences," Niederle asked.

Geraldine Downey, vice provost for diversity at Columbia, recalled that when she was chair of psychology at the university, a job candidate she met wanted her to know how he inspired his students. He told her that he tells them to read Nobel laureates' lectures. "He wanted to win the Nobel Prize. I was horrified," Downey said. "When I try to inspire my students, it's about public service, about doing good for the world," she said.

Universities, if they are going to encourage the careers of women (and of everyone), she said, need to be willing to embrace "people with different values" and be sure that they are fully included. To the extent some men "will compete for anything," Downey said, that should not set a standard where only women who share those values can succeed in academe.

The success of women and men, she said, can be judged on their work and not competitiveness. "It's no longer useful to have a 'sink or swim' mentality," she said.

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